Magnolia Pictures // 2009 // 90 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // August 27th, 2010
Survival isn't just for the living.
George A. Romero is the granddaddy of the zombie movie. Starting with 1968's Night of the Living Dead and followed by the '70s cult classic Dawn of the Dead, the underrated 1985 gem Day of the Dead, 2005's big budget flop Land of the Dead and the indie-produced Diary of the Dead; Romero's status as a master trailblazer just keeps growing. In 2009 Romero released his sixth zombie movie, the aptly titled Survival of the Dead. Running as a limited theatrical release and on pay-per-view cable channels, Magnolia has finally unleashed Romero's newest vision in high definition!
Welcome to another episode of George Romero's zombie apocalypse! Picking up (loosely) where Romero's Diary of the Dead left off, the first stop in Survival of the Dead is a small island off Delaware that houses only two immigrant families: the O'Flynn's, led by Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Welsh, The Fog remake), and the Muldoon's, led by Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick, The Boondock Saints). These sparring neighbors are at odds over the O'Flynn's desire to kill reanimated family members and the Muldoon's interest in keeping their loved ones -- even when rotting and falling apart -- among the living. When Patrick is ousted from the island by a bitter Seamus, he finagles a ride back in with a military outfit led by Sarge Crocket (Alan Van Sprang, one of the only returning actors from Diary of the Dead) and a group of ragtag misfit soldiers. Patrick O'Flynn's return ends in a bloody rampage wherein the Muldoons are attempting to get the zombies to eat animals instead of humans. Get ready for the ultimate showdown of man vs. man vs. brain thirty zombie!
Let's start with the good news first: George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead is nowhere near as bad as 2007's clunker Diary of the Dead, which was easily the nadir of Romero's zombie series. Diary of the Dead was such a low point that it almost made me want to swear off his undead heroes for good. Utilizing the same handheld camera style as Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead failed on almost every level because the story was bound by the confines of the protagonist's camera. If there was a way to make the POV style work for a living dead movie, Romero was not able to find it. Word spread that there would be a sequel to Diary of the Dead, and while that has come to pass, thankfully Romero ditched the POV idea for straight forward filmmaking.
Yet the good news isn't all that great since Survival of the Dead isn't a very good movie in the scope of Romero's universe. This is a rambling, often disjoined affair that doesn't have a clear cinematic goal in mind. If this movie is about the end of the world (and only days into the undead disaster), then why is the world -- i.e. America -- only populated by Irish speaking islanders and a few military folks? Instead of focusing on one band of refugees and their plight, Survival of the Dead tackles multiple groups of people and all of them end up getting lost in the shuffle. The military, the Muldoons, the O'Flynns, the zombies, other random characters...no one gets the focus needed to flesh out their characters. In the end, the movie sort of rambles from one story to the next leaving the viewer with the feeling they've watched about one fourth of four different movies.
For the first time in a Romero film the zombies seem to be almost an afterthought. We end up following a batch of mostly uninteresting characters (save for Welsh's shifty but appealing O'Flynn) while zombies pop up once in a while in the background. Yes, there are some fun kills (my personal favorites utilized a flare gun and a fire extinguisher to great effect) but they're all secondary to a lackluster story and disappointing characters. The actors are all mostly forgettable, especially the military and periphery island characters. Once the film ends on an island we get what appears to be a bunch of cowboys (!) and gruff men in trench coats with shotguns. This movie is about as grounded in reality as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
One of my biggest complaints about the zombie genre is that the effects appear to be moving backwards. This specific genre works far better when practical effects are implemented instead of glossy computer effects. Alas, Romero seems to have bowed to the whims of big budget Hollywood by populating his films with so much CGI work that it often doesn't feel like the action is taking place in real time. This trend was started with Land of the Dead and has now peaked (or valleyed, as it were) with Survival of the Dead. A sequence involving zombie heads on ground stakes in the middle of the woods looks more like a really good video game sequence than a realistic portrayal of terror. This is even more surprising considering Greg Nicotero, who worked on Romero's gross out high point Day of the Dead, was one of the effects supervisors on Survival of the Dead. Even the practical make-up feels lackluster when looking back at the previous entries. If Romero ever gets another shot at a zombie movie I'm hoping he decides to put down the PC mouse and pick up more latex and glue.
I have to admit being a bit disheartened at seeing what's become of Romero's undead vision with Survival of the Dead. It seems with each consecutive film Romero's ideas are spiraling into alternate realities where the characters and situations are removed from our own reality (or as much of a reality as you can make with walking corpses). What makes his first four films in this series really work is the idea that we can see the crumbling world around them; life as we know it has fallen away and a new future must be built. With Survival of the Dead we're left with feuding Irish islanders who live and look like cowboys and allow zombies to ride horseback in the open terrain. If Romero's next movie takes place in an outer space work station with German dockworkers and Ringling Brothers circus clowns, count me out.
Survival of the Dead is presented in 2.35:1 1080p high definition widescreen. Even if the film isn't a stroke of genius, I give kudos to Magnolia for offering fans a very fine looking hi-def transfer. This is a film that is often dark, so black levels are solidly rendered and DNR is hardly ever visible. Colors (lots of sprawling fields and small town locations) are bright and crystal clear. Overall this is a very clear image considering the film was a low budget affair.
The soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround in English. On par with a lot of horror films, Survival of the Dead's audio mix consists of 'stingers' from the rear channels and thumping, evocative music from all six speakers. The dialogue, music and effects (zombie moans in 5.1 surround...bliss!) are all mixed well. Also included are English and Spanish subtitles.
The extra features included on this "Ultimate Undead Edition" include an amusing introduction by director George A. Romero (poking fun at himself and his zombies), an informative commentary track by Romero and some of the crew of the film, "Walking After Midnight" documentary that gives fans a feel of what it was like working on the set of the film, the "Sarge" short film, "A Minute of Your Time" which features 13 behind-the-scenes short featurettes, "Time with George" featurette (which is mostly an interview with the director discussing the film), some storyboard comparisons, a Fangoria magazine interview with Romero and the HDNet feature "A Look at Survival of the Dead."
Oh George, what hath thou wrought upon your living dead? From one unabashed zombie fan to the master, please do us all a favor and reel in your ideas if you are allowed the chance to make another "...of the Dead" movie. I still have faith that you'll pull a home run out of your sleeve at some point. Maybe a Captain Rhodes zombie is in order? As for Survival of the Dead, this is a sluggish, mediocre effort that is worth the viewing but not a purchase (except for hardcore Romero fans).
This latest Romero entry survives, but I'm not so sure it deserves to.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Short Film